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INEDIBLE INDIA

‘Dogster!’

‘Beryl.’

Here we go again.

Beryl’s tracksuit was green today, with a little gold Kangaroo embroidered on the front. No pearls – it was a sea day.

‘Gawd, I’m bored,’ she said, ‘this is like sailing the Sargasso Sea.’

Bermuda Triangle, more like it.

‘I’m having a break from Jean,’

‘She pissing you off again?’

Beryl turned to me and sighed.

‘She’s worried about India. She thinks she’ll die if she touches it.’

*

‘I’m getting off tomorrow for a night ashore.’

A look of horror crossed the Captain’s face.

‘Don’t get sick,’ he said, ‘if you don’t get back onboard we can’t leave.’

Here’s a man who has spent his whole life traveling, still convinced that one step ashore in India would result in certain death.

‘You can’t eat the food,’ he said seriously.  Perhaps he was just toeing the company line: you will DIE in India – unless you take a shore excursion.

Fear is the drug. The ship was full of it. We were sailing to Mumbai.

*

Mr. Dogster leant over the Shore Excursions Desk.

The Captain’s son was playing on the computer, sitting on a staff lap.

‘I’d like to buy a shore excursion, please,’ the old man said very seriously, looking the four year old in the eye.

‘Of course, sir…’ he nodded, entering into the game, as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

The lap belonged to Irinice from Trinidad. He was lucky to be sitting in it. She whispered softly in his ear.

‘Oh,’ he gasped, ‘how may I help you?’

Another Irinice whisper.

‘Err… Sir.’

So Mr. Dogster and Master Isaac, with a great deal of sotto voce from Aunty Irinice, completed our very important business. Isaac pressed buttons on the computer. To his delight tickets came out. Envelopes had to be found, tickets inserted, Isaac even licked and sealed. With a look of tiny triumph he handed Mr. Dogster the completed transaction.

‘Thank you very much, sir.’

‘Thank you very much, Isaac,’ I said solemnly, ‘very professional.’

Mr. Dogster withdrew. Behind my retreating back I could hear the child’s squeal of delight. It’s a shame he couldn’t hear mine.

*

‘We can’t get off in Mumbai,’ King Richard sniffed, careful not to direct any part of his conversation to me.

‘Well, I don’t want to get off in Mumbai,’ Queen Lulu sniffed, ‘filthy place.’

‘We don’t have a damn visa.’

‘Nor us!’ chorused the Chinese surgeon and his kind Aussie wife. We all shared one end of the Captain’s Table.

‘You’d think that they’d realise we cruisers bring money into their god-awful country. Anywhere else in the world you can go ashore on the shore excursions without a visa…’

‘If they don’t want us there, then we don’t want to go,’ said the Chinese doctor.

‘How offensive,’ whispered his wife.

India is such a litmus test. It never fails to appall – and that’s just the tourists. Every secret attitude, every nasty political incorrectness comes slithering to the surface.

‘We taught them everything they know,’ one sniffed.’

All of them thought that they deserved special staus, that the immigration laws of India did not apply to them. They were indignant at the blank refusal of the on-board immigration officers to grant them special status.  Not just indignant – they were angry. It takes a certain kind of mind to get angry at that.

‘It’s all cows and flies,’ Lulu said.

‘Have you been to India before?’ asked Dogster sweetly.

‘Never. Horrible place.’

*

Rose was slow to like Dogster. I can quite understand why. We co-existed for three weeks before she deigned to talk.

It wasn’t just me. She didn’t communicate with anyone much, except her husband – and even he didn’t get much chat. She was a tough old dame, rich, elderly and from somewhere in Florida that certainly wasn’t Disneyland. Unless they’ve opened a new attraction.

So I waited. I knew she’d come round. Actually, Dogster didn’t care whether she did or not. Slowly we bonded. By the time we made it to Mumbai, we almost had whole conversations – admittedly, only when she was drunk. Which was often. Dog is practically teetotal compared to these dames.

I was very keen to hear about her day-trip to the Taj Mahal.

*

Azamara Shore Excursions are run by a man called Luke. He lies for a living but is so charming about it, nobody seems to care. Given the Aza-stonishing prices for the excursions, Luke probably brings in more money than the ship. He holds lengthy briefings, eagerly attended, full of details about exactly how many stairs we have to climb, where the rest-rooms are, chapter and verse on everything you need to know. Little old ladies take notes.

It’s all about fear.

India was perfect for Luke; a sub-continental Petrie dish, just waiting to swallow a hapless Azamite. They stormed the Shore Excursions office, barely a soul prepared to go it alone. Some did – but Luke had a special surprise for them.

He omitted a crucial piece of information. Never, never ever catch a taxi directly outside the terminal.

*

The tour group was at the Taj Mahal Hotel for lunch.

‘Doris! Don’t go in there!’ one shouted out as her friends approached, ‘they’re serving Indian food!’

*

‘It’s so dirty. Garbage this high…’

Debbie showed me.

Cochin garbage is as high as a sweet little lady who lives in Texas – maybe even higher. Debbie from Dallas could only stretch so far.

‘They said I had to take my shoes off to go inside that temple place.’

Her lip curled.

‘Honey, I said, I ain’t taking my shoes off to walk on that filth in a thousand years…’

So much for every temple in India; so much for the six hundred million Hindus; so much for understanding – Debbie from Dallas didn’t care. She’d get papalomas and a disease I forget that starts with ‘B’.

‘What do they think I am? Dirty? I stayed on the coach.’

Her silver hair shook with disgust.

‘The beggars! They were banging on the windows of the tour bus! Don’t they know about birth control? They live like rats.’

Two hours looking out of a coach window at Mumbai was quite enough for her to dismiss the entire sub-continent.

Like I said, Debbie from Dallas could only stretch so far.

*

The Dutch couple rolled their eyes.

‘He wouldn’t take us anywhere we wanted to go, the husband said, ‘he just kept taking us to shops. ‘No shopping,’ I said. So he took us to a shop. ‘We want to see the Gateway to India,’ I said. So he took us to a shop. ‘We want to see the Victoria railway terminal.’ He wouldn’t let us get out. He said we weren’t safe. Then he took us to another shop. I was going crazy. After ninety minutes I just said ‘take us back to the ship. So we came back.’

‘How much did you pay?

‘Eight thousand rupees.’

That’s two hundred dollars.

The Mumbai Taxi Mafia strikes again.

*

When I next saw Rose and her husband, they were both so drunk that conversation was positively obligatory. They were sitting in the dining room, greedily eating everything in sight.

‘Dogster! Come, come, join us!’

They wanted to tell me all about India.

‘The roads! Incredible! There are cows, animals, carts – no road rules, they blow their horn at everything. We thought we’d die!’

Their trip had been a massive shlep: a bus to Mumbai airport, security, hang around, a flight to Delhi, drive four hours to Agra, dinner and overnight at the Oberoi, see the Taj  at crack ‘o dawn, drive back to Delhi airport, fly to Mumbai and back to the boat. I was talking to them as we sailed away. They’d just made it back, starving.

‘The traffic was amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it!’

‘How was the Taj Mahal?’

The question surprised them. They stopped enthusing for a second and reflected.

‘Like the pictures,’ she said flatly. Then they went back to gushing about the roads, wildly excited and still very hungry.

‘We didn’t eat anything ashore,’ Rose said, stuffing pasta into her mouth, ‘you never know…’

Inedible India.

‘Was it money well spent?’

He thought for a moment and clicked his fingers.

‘Four grand. Gone like that.’

No wonder Luke was a happy man

*

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